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US Senate Blocks Washington’s Revised Criminal Code Act

Written by on March 10, 2023

The U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to block Washington’s Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022.

In a bipartisan vote of 81-14, lawmakers advanced the Republican-led resolution with 33 Democrats voting alongside every Republican and Independent Senator Kyrsten Sinema.

The vote on the so-called resolution of disapproval came after the House of Representatives blocked the RCCA on February 9. The bill will now go to President Joe Biden, who has said he will sign the measure. Biden has been under increasing pressure from Republicans who have made reducing crime a political priority as he gears up for a likely announcement of his presidential reelection campaign in the coming months.

A congressional disapproval resolution has not succeeded in Washington in about three decades.

The Council of the District of Columbia passed the act in November, but Mayor Muriel Bowser vetoed it in January. She released a letter saying that while she supports 95% of the bill, she is concerned about certain aspects that would reduce maximum penalties for certain offenses.

“It’s more important to get this opportunity right than to add policies and weaken penalties into what should be a bill that makes D.C. safer,” she wrote.

The council overrode her veto 12-1 on January 17.

Bowser has since introduced the Revised Criminal Code Amendment Act of 2023, which would alter some policies in the original version. It would not take effect until 2027.

“This is our capital city. But local politicians have let its streets become a danger and an embarrassment,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Wednesday morning.

In a statement released after Wednesday night’s vote, D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb said, “To overturn our local, democratically enacted laws — the product of 10+ years of collaboration between law enforcement, judges and policy experts — without any independent analysis, review or alternative proposal, is not only undemocratic, but also careless.”

The House delegate for the district, Eleanor Holmes Norton, released a statement Wednesday stating that she will continue working to persuade Biden to not sign the disapproval resolution.

“Even if President Biden signs the resolution and denies D.C. residents the very self-governance that he has claimed to support, this chapter of D.C.’s continuing fight for autonomy is, in itself, a powerful argument for the full rights that can only be provided by D.C. statehood,” she said.

“Statehood would give the nearly 700,000 residents of the nation’s capital voting representation in Congress and full local self-government, and would ensure that Congress and the Executive Branch will never again be able to overturn local D.C. laws. I will not stop until the job is done.”

What is the Revised Criminal Code Act?

The Revised Criminal Code Act of 2022 is a rewrite of the existing criminal code that has been in the works for 16 years. The current criminal code hasn’t been comprehensively updated since 1901, and the new law would not take effect until 2025.

The bill would lower penalties for offenses such as carjackings. The current sentence is from seven to 21 years, and 15 to 40 if armed. Under the revised code, carjacking is divided into three gradations depending on severity, with the lowest penalties for an unarmed offense running from four to 18 years and the highest penalties for an armed offense ranging from 12 to 24 years.

Many opponents of the bill are concerned that this will increase crime; however, the RCCA’s maximum sentence for armed carjacking is harsher than that of 15 states. The revised code also increases sentences for attempted murder, attempted sexual assault, misdemeanor sexual abuse and many other crimes.

Ward 5 Council Member Zachary Parker wrote in an email that he supports the legislation, saying, “Years of evidence-based research, dialogue, debate, public engagement and thoughtful improvements went into producing it. … I truly believe it will foster healthier communities by creating a more uniform penalty system, reducing sentencing disparities that fall hardest on Black men and their families.”

Black residents experience more aggressive and frequent policing by the Metropolitan Police Department. In 2020, a D.C. Council report showed Black people accounted for 88% of stops, 91% of arrests and 100% of use-of-force incidents in the district. As of January 2023, 90.3% of city inmates were Black, according to the Department of Corrections Facts and Figures report.

Although violent crime in the district decreased by 7% last year compared with 2021, homicides topped 200 for the second time in nearly two decades in 2022, according to data from the Metropolitan Police Department.

As of March 2023, violent crime in the capital was down 9%, while property crime was up 31% compared with last year.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.

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